The annual CEDIA (Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association) trade show just wrapped up its 2005 event in Indianapolis this past weekend. CEDIA is synonymous with "high end home theater," and manufacturers often use this show to unveil their latest home theater projectors.

Every trade show has a story, and the story for this year's CEDIA was the barrage of new LCD projectors boasting contrast specifications of 5000:1 or greater. Let's take a moment to put this into perspective. Historically, DLP has always enjoyed a market perception as the leading video technology due largely to its ability to deliver greater dynamic range than either LCD or LCOS. For the most part, DLP projectors have always carried higher contrast ratings than have LCD projectors. Meanwhile, LCD vendors have tended to respond competitively with lower price tags. Thus, if you wanted DLP performance, you'd expect to pay a premium for it, at least as far as home theater projectors are concerned. These pricing dynamics have traditionally reinforced the consumer's perception of DLP as the "better" video technology.

Five dramatic product announcements in the last five days are set to challenge this conventional wisdom. For the first time in a long time, LCD is not just playing me-too, with price/performance propositions merely adequate to remain in the game. This time LCD has flexed some serious competitive muscle, at least to the extent these things can be judged by official spec sheets. The five powerhouse LCD releases, all featuring 1280x720 widescreen panels, are as follows:

Sanyo PLV-Z4. Featuring a unique dual iris light engine, the Z4 is rated up to 7000:1 contrast, and 1000 ANSI lumens. It has wide latitude vertical and horizontal lens shift, and a very long 2.0x zoom range that enables it to deliver a 100" image anywhere within 9.8 to 20 feet of throw distance. This is much improved over last year's PLV-Z3, with its 1.3x zoom lens. The longer zoom range will make the Z4 easier to install in a variety of viewing spaces. (Sanyo was not actually at CEDIA, but timed the product announcement to coincide with the show. Thus we have not seen a Z4 as of yet. As of this writing no retail price has been announced; once it is, we will update the Z4 spec page.)

Panasonic PT-AE900. Incorporates a rapid dynamic iris, dynamic gamma, and dynamic sharpness control that allows it to completely reconfigure itself frame by frame every 1/60 second. Panasonic claims to be the only manufacturer that has achieved a 1/60 second reconfiguration speed, and this may well be the case. No other vendor we have spoken with that offers dynamically reconfiguring iris technology is able or willing to quote the speed of the system. The AE900's contrast is 5500:1 with iris activated, and when it is viewed side-by-side with last year's AE700, the improvement in dynamic range is obvious. The AE900 retains the 2.0x zoom range of its predecessor, and a number of other features have been added. Retail price is $3,199, and shipments commence in another few weeks.

Epson Powerlite Pro Cinema 800. Rated at a whopping 1600 ANSI lumens and 5000:1 contrast, this is the brightest widescreen home theater projector under $5,000. Generally, high contrast can only be achieved at the expense of lumen output, so the combination of high lumen output and high contrast on this unit is unique and noteworthy. The product is designed for use with very large screens, or to accommodate some degree of ambient light in the viewing area. It is priced at $4,495.

Epson Powerlite Cinema 550. A lower priced, lower performance companion piece to the more muscular 800, this one is rated at 1400 ANSI lumens and 3000:1 contrast. (Did you ever expect 3000:1 to sound "low" for an LCD projector?). This model is priced at $2,495, and it is intended for use in home entertainment settings with ambient light in the room. Ambient light hammers actual screen contrast, and renders the projector's theoretical contrast rating irrelevant anyway. So 3000:1 contrast is more than ample for its intended application environment.

Hitachi UltraVision HDPJ52. Hitachi's elegant new top-of-the-line home theater projector is rated at 1200 ANSI lumens and 5000:1 contrast. It features a dual iris system, ten-step gamma adjustments, and a 1.6x zoom lens with vertical and horizontal lens shift, all packaged into beautifully designed casework. It will ship this month at a retail price of $3,999.

Overall, based upon the published specifications, features, and prices, these releases from Epson, Hitachi, Panasonic, and Sanyo may collectively have enough substance to challenge the preeminence of DLP as the leading video technology. LCD has not had this strong a showing against DLP in many years, and certainly the debate will be reinvigorated.

However, a word of caution is warranted. Demonstrations staged by vendors at trade shows are of little value in assessing the true performance capabilities of a projector. Moreover, specifications are often deceiving and theoretical in nature; contrast and brightness are heavily influenced by the action of a variable iris (or two) on each of these new models, so the final assessment of the relative strength of these products as compared to the DLP competition cannot be known until they are viewed in side by side evaluations with identical inputs.

Though it was LCD's turn to shine at CEDIA 2005, there was one very significant DLP product release in response to the models just mentioned-the Mitsubishi HC3000. This is a 1280x768 DLP projector using the HD2+ DarkChip3. Rated at 1000 ANSI lumens and 4000:1 contrast, it is the first DLP projector on the market to incorporate the new technology from Texas Instruments known as BrilliantColor (TM). The impressive demos of BrilliantColor at Infocomm in June, and again at CEDIA, seem to indicate that a whole new level of color performance has been achieved in single chip DLP projectors. Historically speaking, just as contrast was always a weakness in LCD as compared to DLP, color richness and vibrancy was one of the single-chip DLP's weaknesses relative to LCD. And with BrilliantColor, it appears that this deficiency has been eliminated.

Furthermore, in aggressive competitive response to the array of new high contrast LCD models, the Mitsubishi HC3000 carries a price of just $2,995, making it not only the first model to feature BrilliantColor, but also the first DarkChip3 projector in this resolution class to go below the $3,000 price point. Accordingly, in terms of overall price/performance, the Mitsubishi HC3000 appears to be one of the most formidable new DLP projectors released at the show.

Thus, we are suddenly confronted with the odd spectacle of a DLP projector carrying a lower contrast rating and a lower retail price than the corresponding LCD competition in the same resolution class. This has never happened before in the history of the industry. Due to its low price, high resolution, high 4000:1 contrast, and the added advantage of BrilliantColor capability, the Mitsubishi HC3000 appears well-positioned to become one of the best-selling projectors in the industry in the coming months.

Yet the Mitsubishi release was not the only news on the DLP front. Samsung debuted a pair of 1280x720 resolution DLP projectors that will be of particular interest to videophiles. The SP-H710AE incorporates the HD2+ DLP chip, and is rated at 700 AL and 2800:1 contrast. The SP-H800BE features the newer HD2+ DarkChip3, and is rated at 800 AL and 3800:1 contrast. Both of these units have been developed in association with Joe Kane Productions with the objective of ensuring that they deliver absolutely precise color accuracy, solid black levels, and maximum dynamic range of image detail. They will appeal to the videophile purist, and to professionals in the content creation industry who require precision monitors. The H710 is priced at $4,000, and the H800 is $12,000. Both will start shipping this month.

In other projector-related developments, the previously announced BenQ PE8720 has just commenced shipment. This model, which is 720p resolution with the DC3 DLP chip, was being shown in an off-site suite. It is without a doubt the most elegant and sophisticated projector yet produced by BenQ. It was easy to believe that it can deliver every bit of its rated contrast of 6000:1, as in the demo the image sparkled with outstanding dynamic range on a matte white screen. BenQ is widely recognized for its extensive line of competitively priced commercial projectors, and the company has gained respect for its previous home theater offerings. However, the PE8720 is a major step forward that has the potential to establish BenQ as one of the elite makers of home theater projection systems. It is now available at a retail price of $7,999.

Sony announced a lower priced version of the high-end Qualia-004, which is called the VPL-VW100. This projector uses Sony's proprietary SXRD reflective technology and a 400-watt Xenon lamp. Resolution is 1920x1080, and contrast is quoted as "between 3000:1 and 15,000:1." However, the live demonstration of the pre-production sample did not manifest either the image acuity or high contrast that the specs would lead one to anticipate. Undoubtedly this projector will be able to perform at a level higher than the demonstration indicated once it is polished into its production form. The VPL-VW100 is scheduled to ship in the December/January timeframe at a retail price of $10,000.

SharpVision announced two more home theater models, the DT-100 at the entry level, and the XV-Z12000 Mark II at the top of the line. The DT-100 is 854x480, single chip DLP with 2000:1 contrast, and a 5x wheel rotation speed. It will ship next month at a retail price of $1299. This will be the first DLP projector with a 5x wheel speed in this entry level price range.

Sharp's XV-Z12000 Mark II will also ship next month at a retail price of $10,000. This is an upgraded edition of last year's XV-Z12000. It uses the DC3 DLP chip, a 7-segment 5x color wheel. Contrast has been boosted from 5500:1 to 7000:1, and brightness has been increased from 900 to 1000 AL.

Yamaha announced the DPX-1300, which is a slight upgrade from the previous DPX-1200. The new model is still rated at 800 AL and 5000:1 contrast as was the earlier version, and it will still retail at $12,500. The only difference between the two models is that the Faroudja video processing has been replaced with a competing chipset from Silicon Optix. The DPX-1300 will begin shipment next month.

Several vendors had no new models to add to their product lines for this show, including InFocus, NEC, and JVC. However, the InFocus Screenplay 777 was dropped to $14,999, making it the first 3-chip DLP projector to drop below $15,000. Contrast on this model was also improved to 5000:1. Meanwhile, JVC reduced the price of their 1920x1080 resolution DLA-HD2K-Sys from $29,995 to $19,995 earlier this month. The DLA-HD2K uses JVC's proprietary version of LCOS technology, which they call D-ILA. The HD2K is, in my view, the most natural, non-digital looking digital projector yet produced. It is truly an artistic engineering achievement. Dedicated videophiles with the financial resources on hand should not miss the opportunity to audition it.

Conclusion

The state of the art in home theater projection systems took another leap forward at this year's CEDIA. LCD technology in particular has reasserted itself as a leading video technology that has nothing to fear in terms of image performance from its DLP competition. On the other hand, the dramatic move by Mitsubishi in taking the WXGA resolution DLP DarkChip3 with BrilliantColor below $3,000 is the first of what will be many aggressive responses by DLP makers in 2006 to the gauntlet that has just been thrown down by Epson, Hitachi, Panasonic, and Sanyo. For the consumer, it just keeps getting better and better.